January 2015

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January 2015

News & Notices

Andi Lyons to Receive 2015 Joel E. Rubin Founder’s Award

Janet Gramza Communications Associate

Andi Lyons enjoys a sunny day in upstate New York.

Andi Lyons learned she won USITT’s 2015 Joel E. Rubin Founder’s Award five months ago, and she still doesn’t believe it.

“I looked in my membership directory at the names of all the distinguished people who have received this award over the years, and I really thought, ‘They have made a big mistake,’” she said.

Andi Lyons helps with diversity training at the USITT Board of Directors meeting in August, in one of her traditional non-traditional ties.

Photo/Barbara E.R. Lucas

Andi Lyons is known for both her sense of humor and her modesty about her own achievements. As a lesbian whose formal uniform is jeans and a tie, “I tend to stick out in a crowd,” she said. To her USITT family, she stands out as a leader, role model, and pioneer for diversity and equality within USITT and in the backstage world.

“Awarding this recognition to Andi is a fabulous way to celebrate her 20 tireless years of leading the effort to change the faces of USITT,” Michael Mehler, a member of USITT’s Diversity Committee, wrote in his nomination.

Said Board Member Kasey Allee-Foreman, “Andi stands up for equality with a kindness, strength, and grace that I aspire to attain.”

Andi is a lighting designer and professor of theatrical design and technology at The University at Albany - SUNY. She joined the Institute in 1982 and has been an active force for change since 1992.

Growing up in Boston in the ’60s, she was “not your average-looking person” and never pretended otherwise. “No one ever made the mistake of assuming I was a straight woman,” she said.

In high school, a teacher told her that her looks ruled out a science career. She went to Brandeis University, but didn’t fit in. She left and backpacked to California. She was broke and homeless when tiny Keuka College tracked her down with a scholarship offer.

There she fell in love with upstate New York, met her first life partner Susan, and started her career in theatre as a scene shop carpenter. On graduating, she was torn between English literature and theatre design and technology. She chose Yale School of Drama for her MFA in technical design and production because “it felt like real people did real work there.”

Illness struck Susan in Andi’s first year out of school. After cancer treatment, they moved to Albany so Susan could study library science. Andi got the technical director gig at Albany and thought she’d stay three years. That was 32 years ago.

She attended her first USITT Conference in 1987 in Minneapolis and loved it. But the next year, Susan’s cancer returned. She died in April 1991.

A year later, Andi went to USITT ’92 in Seattle and found it “incredibly welcoming.” But she was the only woman at the Technical Production Commission meeting, and she heard other women at the Conference saying, “There are hardly any women here!”

That was the start. She helped create the USITT Women’s Caucus and the first women’s networking session in 1995. Their first outreach led to the Human Issues Caucus, the Queer Nation Round Table, and the People of Color Networking Project. These days, diversity and inclusion are important parts of USITT’s mission, thanks to her continuing efforts.

Andi, who married her second life partner, Janka Bialek, on their 21st anniversary last year, said her identity as “a big ol’ dyke” helped her become “the one known for pointing out the elephant in the room.”

“So many lesbian and gay people of my generation tried to be straight or hid their orientation,” she said. “I never had that option, so I could speak out. It gave me the freedom to say the things that need to be said – which might make it a little uncomfortable for me, but makes it better for the next person.”